Iwo Jima to Afghanistan, a family goes to war

Stephen Barton in Afghanistan
Courtesy of the Johnson family

Stephen Barton never knew his grandfather, Walter Johnson, but both men enlisted in the military when they were 18 -- Barton in the U.S. Army, Johnson in the U.S. Marines.

Barton served first in Iraq and then Afghanistan, Johnson on Iwo Jima during World War II. He was on the island when the Associated Press's Joe Rosenthal took his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising an American flag.

Johnson died four years before Barton was born, but the younger man grew up idolizing him from the stories he heard from his mother, Marlys Johnson. When he finished high school, he wanted an adventure.

"I just wanted to go and experience something uncommon," said Barton, who now lives in Chico, Ca.

Three months after he arrived in Diyala Province in Iraq, his convoy was hit by an IED, or improvised explosive device, killing some of the men he was with. Soon afterward the unit moved toward the center of the country, to Salahuddin Province and an urban area where it was hard for soldiers to defend themselves, he said.

"I think we made more of an impact in Iraq," he said. "We communicated with the locals, we tried to help them get the things that they wanted and needed and I think we had a positive impact. But it was certainly more difficult to do anything and stay within the rules of engagement.

"While in Afghanistan I don't believe we had any impact at all, but we were certainly allowed to defend ourselves," he said. "I think that the area we were in was exactly the same when we left as when we came."

Stephen Barton in Afghanistan
Courtesy of the Johnson family

In Afghanistan, Barton was a forward observer, an artillery spotter, at a remote outpost in the Kunar Province for the 3rd Platoon, Archangel Troop, 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry. On Feb. 3, 2010, the platoon came under attack by about 35 fighters with mortars and machine guns. In the first moments of the attack, a mortar landed about 50 feet from the platoon's position, according to a nomination submitted for a Bronze star for Barton but which he did not receive.

Barton left his cover and exposed himself to fire as he identified places where artillery and aircraft could fire on their attackers.

"As the firefight drew on and ammunition became scare, Sgt Barton once again jumped into action and selflessly exposed himself to effective enemy fire and engaged four enemy fighting positions with AT4s," the nomination reads, referring to a kind of light anti-tank weapon.

Barton said he did nothing more than the others.

"I did my job when we were under attack," he said.

Walter Johnson (left with gun) and his grandson, Stephen Barton
Courtesy the Johnson family

His grandfather was among the 70,000 Marines sent to take Iwo Jima in February 1945. The island, eight square miles and part of a volcanic archipelago, had airstrips that the Americans wanted as a base for its fighter planes accompanying bombers flying to Japan. The fight for the island lasted about more than a month with heavy casualties.

Johnson was one of the first of the 230 men who landed on Iwo Jima in Company E, Second Battalion, 28th Marines, Fifth Marine Division, said retired Col. Dave Severance, then a captain and the company's commander.

"He was a member of my machine gun platoon," Severance said.

On Feb. 23, Severance was ordered to send a platoon to the summit of Mount Suribachi and the men raised an American flag there.

"A couple of hours later they raised a second flag," Severance said. "Joe Rosenthal took a picture and that's the one that you find of the flag-raising on Iwo."

The Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wanted the flag as a memento and the Marines were determined to keep the first one for themselves, he has said.

Three out of four men in the company were wounded or killed, Severance said.

Johnson returned home and went on to become an English teacher in California. In the 1984, Severance tried to get in touch in him but his letter was returned. Johnson died from cancer that year.

Barton is home in California, studying at Shasta College, a two-year college, while he works at Home Depot. He said he was thinking of becoming a police officer once he gets his bachelor's degree.